We all know that being a professional in any field means facing competition and criticism. It can feel overwhelming to a young person who is trying to find their own way in that environment. As their teachers, we have the opportunity to prepare them for this reality and give them the tools to accept and give feedback. It is important to teach students how to be analytical individuals who can look for ways to grow in their craft, while also being collaborative team members who know how to interact in positive and healthy ways. The following ideas can be incorporated into any lesson for just a few minutes at a time, yet they can help lay a critical foundation for growing young minds as they mature in their ability to give and receive healthy feedback.
Positivity, Specificity, and the Compliment Sandwich
A good place to start is to teach students a very basic structure of healthy feedback. My favorite practice is the compliment sandwich: Compliment-Criticism-Compliment. This is a great place to start with any age of student. Even high school students embrace this simple structure as a great place to start before progressing to more advanced ways of giving feedback. With younger elementary students, we draw our own little compliment sandwiches to hold up and refer to as we walk through our feedback of a performance.
I like the compliment sandwich so much because I think it is important to teach students to start with positivity. When faced with any sort of assessment of others or ourselves, it is often too easy to find the negative. I have found that students will immediately list all the things they did wrong when I ask them how they felt their performance went. This way of thinking can get internalized and ingrained into a pattern of thinking about themselves. In a world where they will already face criticism, I want to teach my students to see the good in themselves and others.
Although criticism may come faster to most of us, healthy criticism does not necessarily come naturally. There is a difference between finding weak areas of a performance and providing tips for improvement, and just tearing someone down. A way to combat the emotionally-charged kind of criticism we don’t want is to encourage students to be specific.
The person delivering the criticism should think about attainable, manageable things that can be worked on and fixed through personal practice. Instead of saying, “I didn’t like how you played that,” offer one overarching technical aspect that would help it sound more pleasing; was it their contact point that led to a scratchy tone? A lack of dynamics that led to no phrasing? Instead of saying, “You played really out of tune,” the feedback-giver can find a specific spot in the music that wasn’t as in tune and suggest to the performer to practice that slowly with a drone.
Those specific thoughts are important to go over and talk with students about. It is great to have a class discussion on why healthy criticism is a good thing and how it helps us grow. I have asked my students to share examples of when criticism was not delivered to them well and how that made them feel. Did that type of critical feedback necessarily help them grow, too?
After having a good discussion that allows students to feel ownership of this positive direction, it is time to show them how to become practicers of healthy collaboration and criticism. Like with any new skill I am teaching students, I start with modeling it for them first. I will choose one student or a small group of students to play something short and then I will model giving helpful feedback. I can also do it with the entire orchestra after they perform a piece for me. Whether they realize it or not, I have been modeling this process of feedback from the beginning of the year, and now students understand the philosophy and technique behind it.
An example of what I would say after an informal student performance might be, “I really loved the way you played those Low 2 F naturals. I think if you played the excerpt closer to the balance point you can get more of the stroke you wanted. You did an awesome job showing us the dynamics of the first line!”
This concept still works for more advanced students, even if there has to be a double-decker sandwich of sorts:
“Beautiful job with the opening line; I could really feel the emotion. Experiment with your contact point on the string in the development to achieve those different dynamics. I loved your vibrato on that high A in the transition out of the development. There were a couple of notes leading up to it that sounded a little unsure in pitch, so try isolating that spot and practice it slowly. Beautiful job memorizing the piece!”
In addition to helping guide students toward an established sense of trust and support in how they give feedback with one another, this also trains their ears to really listen during a performance. It is a process that makes both the listener and performer a stronger musician.
Put it into Practice
Once you have spent time modeling how to structure the “sandwich,” students can start trying it out. A good place to begin is with watching and critiquing videos. This can be of world-renowned musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, or of a middle school orchestra video you found through a search on YouTube. You can have the entire class watch the video and then write their compliment sandwiches down. They can share their feedback in groups while you walk around and give your input.
Another idea that is always fun for students: put yourself in the “hot seat” and play something. Of course, students have fun finding “what’s wrong with the teacher,” and this also provides the opportunity to model how to receive feedback well. Being able to take criticism to heart and grow from there is just as important as delivering it well. You can show students how to not take yourself too seriously, how to thank others for their feedback, and how to apply that in your practice sessions.
When on the hot seat, you can model a great performance, or make mistakes on purpose and call on students to offer their positive and helpful feedback. If you really want to humble yourself, choose an instrument that is not your primary one and let those students give you real feedback you probably need! They take that task seriously and appreciate the vulnerability in their teacher.
Now comes the time for students to practice this with each other. Again, they can do this in small groups or in front of the whole class. If there is a brave soul who would like to play for everyone and get feedback in front of the class, they can call on a friend to offer feedback as you watch and make suggestions when needed. Remind students that the idea is not to lie or sugarcoat their criticism, and it is not to choose favorites and tell someone how “awesome” and “amazing” they are. Their job is to comment on what their peer is doing right and to give feedback on what they can do to become better.
Be Who You Want Your Students to Be
Teaching students how to give healthy feedback to one another begins with establishing an environment where students feel safe and free to make mistakes. Students need specific feedback to grow as musicians, but it is also a time to nurture their love of music and playing their instrument. Deeply negative experiences in the music room involving unhealthy criticism often discourage young musicians to continue playing their instruments later in life.
We can change that.
The teacher sets the tone and creates the environment of the classroom. With feedback and every interaction with students, we can model healthy, positive ways in how we speak with our students. Every conversation, every piece of feedback, every situation regarding misbehavior is an opportunity to show students how we would like for them to speak toward one another and think about themselves.